By Hemant Mehta
Last week, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three scientists who used the ideas behind evolutionary biology to design a variety of molecules. One of the laureates was Frances H. Arnold, who used a process called “directed evolution” to create powerful enzymes.
For this “directed evolution” research, she inserted the gene that produced the enzyme she wanted to study into fast-reproducing bacteria. With mutations of the gene, she could then examine how well variations of the enzyme worked. She chose the one that worked best and repeated the process — just like evolution chooses the survival of the fittest over succeeding generations.
In her initial experiments in the 1990s, she was able to produce an enzyme more than 200 times as effective as the one she started with by the third generation.
That’s incredible. In fact, in that experiment, the enzyme had ten different mutations which contributed to its effectiveness, which Arnold only figured out due to her ability to harness the randomness of evolution in her favor. As the committee noted, she showed the “power of allowing chance and directed selection, instead of solely human rationality, to govern the development of new enzymes.”
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